I actually wrote most of this post five years ago, as a kind of response to a certain nasty, hateful sermon by our former pastor. Back in those days, I still naively harbored hope of convincing Evangelicals to take a different look at things, based on the new knowledge we have of sex, gender, and sexuality. (And also a look at how sexist beliefs about the congenital inferiority of women have driven the discussion of sexuality and gender identity for thousands of years.) I am less optimistic now, although I do know people (including me) who have changed, so maybe this will be helpful.
I also wrote this before I knew I had an LGBTQ child - although I have had a premonition for a very long time that I would have one. I don’t know why, but I did.
I wrote this with a primary eye toward discussing sexual orientation, not gender diversity, but have updated a few places. In general, substitute one for the other as needed.
My intent with this post is to discuss what I see as the four approaches someone who is a Christian might happen to have to sexuality and gender diversity. I have previously discussed how I came to my own - “Side A” - views.
Let me start this one with a couple of premises. I believe them to be true both on the basis of statistical research, my personal experience, and the experiences of others. Those who do not agree with these premises will naturally tend to disagree with my conclusions. However, if it proves that the premises are correct, and one has based one’s entire disagreement on those premises, then the whole edifice will fail. Furthermore, if you base your argument on the falseness of the premises, then your argument will have no weight with anyone who accepts the premises.
In other words, your argument will only work with those inside your bubble - who probably agree with you already.
1. Sexual Orientation (and gender identity) is not a choice.
I could refer to a significant body of research over the last century. But equally effective to me is the story of any number of LGBTQ persons of their own experience. I was in high school when I first experienced the “coming out” of a friend. I also am involved in Classical Music as a semi-professional violinist. Whatever combination of genetic components go into sexual orientation (particularly in males, where some specific genetic links have been found) also seem to be correlated with artistic temperament and ability. Thus, I know a good number of LGBTQ people as friends, colleagues, and mentors. I do not know a single one who one day decided to be gay. Without exception, they just knew, usually around the first stirrings of puberty. Sometimes earlier than that. So the studies just confirm what one could learn by simply listening to other people.
Also very much to the point here is the fact that I can list several of my friends and acquaintances who were extremely devout Christians, and who were horrified to discover they were gay, and who spent long, hard hours desperately trying to “pray the gay away” with zero success. Some even endured “conversion therapy” to try to “fix” themselves.
One that particularly haunts me is this one, “For me, when I realised as a teenager I was a lesbian I felt like I had cancer.”
This is pretty good proof that the meaning of Romans 1 cannot be a description of how sexual orientation develops in an individual. Saint Paul’s description of a progression from idolatry to heterosexual orgies to homosexual acts - and then to other, non-sexual, vices - doesn’t fit any of my Christian (or non-Christian) gay friends. But it does fit a certain Roman pagan cult pretty well. (In fact, a number of early church thinkers were convinced that Romans 1 was a direct response to this pagan cult.)
Remember, we are talking about 12 year old, 10 year old - or even younger children, not hardened profligates. Whatever Paul was talking about, it wasn’t children realizing how they were created.
One more important point here: there is a fairly strong correlation between neurodiversity in general (such as autism spectrum) and sexual and gender diversity. Neurodiverse people are more likely to be LGBTQ, which strongly suggests that sexual orientation and gender identity are themselves examples of neurodiversity.
So, for me, premise number one is that your sexual orientation and gender identity are part of how the Creator makes you.
2. Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity cannot be “cured.”
For a time, many Christians believed that sexual orientation was the result of abusive childhoods (or at least bad parenting), and thus could be cured by therapy. Groups like Exodus International sprang up, offering hope to the parents of LGBTQ children that there was a fix for the problem.
The problem was, this “hope” turned out to be an illusion. In fact, the success rate of attempts to change sexual orientation - particularly for those at the ends of the scale - is dismal at best. More like a rate of zero.
Exodus International itself closed its doors a few years ago, realizing that it was causing harm, while doing no good. In the apology it issued it stated that the blame assigned to the parents was wrong, and harmed those families; and that also the conversion “therapy” was not working, and instead led to an alarmingly higher suicide rate. Particularly among minors. (This is why states like my native California have banned “conversion therapy” by licensed professionals.) Over the last few years, many of the top advocates for this “therapy” have realized they couldn’t even change themselves, and have come out as gay - and married same-sex partners.
For some interesting background on conversion “therapy,” and its lack of success, see this project. Warning: it contains descriptions of some pretty sick, abusive stuff.
Bottom line: You are likely born with your orientation and identity, and it almost certainly won’t change or be “cured” by some program.
So, as I see it, these are the possible responses to these premises:
1. The Denialist Approach
In a nutshell, the approach rejects the premises altogether. To the Denialist, supposedly gay people could just choose to become heterosexual any time they want. (Or at least with proper therapy.) To the Denialist, nobody is born gay. At best, the problem was caused by the parents; but more likely, the gay person has just chosen to rebel against God.
This approach is the one taken by some specific groups of people. The first are what I call “Cultural Fundamentalists.” I wrote about them here, if you want to understand how I use the terms. For these people, a good thump of the Bible is enough to win the argument. The Bible “clearly” says that homosexuality is the result of rebellion against God, and that settles the argument. Reality be damned. If the Bible said the sun went around the earth, then it does, regardless of what scientists may say.
The other group that seems to take this approach fairly consistently are the older generations. Particularly my grandparents’ generation, but also a significant number of my parents’ generation. I attribute this to a large degree to two factors. First, it is extremely difficult to change one’s mind about an important issue when one has spent one’s entire (long) life on one side of that issue. Hence why most people stay with the same political party or even car manufacturer even as things change. So reconsidering this issue would require an extensive remodeling of a lifelong view of the world. That’s hard for anyone, but it is particularly difficult after 60 - or 80 - years.
The second factor, in my opinion, is that the older generations grew up when gays were mostly in the closet. So many probably believe (or at least feel deep down) that they never knew a gay person. Or, the gay people they knew didn’t come out until later in life, leading to the impression that orientation was a recent “decision,” rather than a lifelong secret held at great cost. (This also leads them to believe that more and more people are LGBTQ than ever before, thus indicating that it is a choice that people make, or something caused by a “degenerate” culture.)
In contrast, Gen Xers like myself - and Millennials even more so - grew up knowing LGBTQ people. They have been our friends, our mentors, or bosses, our coworkers, and even our relatives. So we had a lot harder time thinking of LGBTQ people as evil monsters, whatever the James Dobsons of the world said about them.
The Denialist position also leads to other problems. For example, because of the belief that sexual orientation is a choice, there is a fear - terror really - that being gay is somehow contagious. One little contact with a gay person, and boom! one’s kid can get the gay virus.
For someone like me, a cishet Kinsey Zero, this seems beyond silly. I have known at least since my voice started changing at age 11 that I was strongly heterosexual. I didn’t wake up one day and choose to be attracted to women, I just was. I was a dang horny teen who had to remind himself not to stare at pretty girls. And that was that. And I cannot even imagine it ever changing. Likewise, although I do not fit “masculine” cultural stereotypes that well, I am and always have been perfectly comfortable as a male. (In fact, because I am secure in my male identity, I do not feel the need to perform “masculinity” to prove it to myself and others.)
Another problem of the denialist position is to view the LGBTQ population as a malevolent conspiracy. As was pounded into us as kids, these people were supposedly so guilty all the time that they just had to recruit more and more gays so that they would feel less guilty. And, of course, they were out to get the kids!
In essence, this viewpoint requires a certain dehumanization of LGBTQ people, because it is a view of them as deliberately choosing to commit the worst of sins, just like a mass murderer.
So, the denialist approach: Orientation isn’t inborn, and can be changed at any time. Thus, gays are in active rebellion against God.
One really big problem with this approach:
“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” ~ Aldous Huxley
Ignoring the facts in this case will only have the effect of alienating people from your faith. It is never a good thing when you require people to ignore inconvenient facts in order to join their faith.
2. The “Calvinist” Approach
Before my Calvinist friends and relatives jump all over me, let me clarify. This approach may not be one that all Calvinists subscribe to. But it is one that is absolutely consistent with Calvinist beliefs. In essence, Calvinists differ from Arminians like myself in that they believe God chooses who to save. (And by obvious implication, who to damn to eternal torture. I know Calvinists hate it when we point this out, but it is logically inescapable.) Free will may seem like it exists, but it doesn’t really at the most true level. We are chosen for our destiny. [Side note here: conveniently, it seems that God chooses to redeem mostly middle class cishet white people. Hmm.]
So, the “Calvinist” approach to sexual orientation in a nutshell: Orientation may well be inborn and unchangeable, and most people will be unable to achieve lifelong celibacy - but that is just fine. God probably created LGBTQ people to serve as an example and to bring God glory by being damned and burning in hell for eternity.
And hey, why not? If, like Calvin, you believe that God controls every detail of the world, and that free will doesn’t really exist, then this should follow naturally. You have already granted that God elects some for damnation. (If you believe only some are elected for salvation, then by definition the rest have been elected for damnation. Sorry. If I choose to feed only some of my children, I have chosen to starve the others.)
So wouldn’t sexual orientation be a great example of election? One child is heterosexual, and is otherwise elected for salvation. Great glory to God!
Another child is born LGBTQ, and is thus (more likely than not) elected for damnation. Also great glory to God!
But….this might not be much consolation to the parent of an LGBTQ child. In fact, this is why I believe that the Calvinist approach may well lead to abortions of LGBTQ children if a reliable prenatal test for orientation is ever developed. After all, if one believes in the “age of responsibility,” wouldn’t it be humane to send the child to heaven rather than let him or her burn in hell? (Actually, this is a good argument to abort all children, come to think of it. Why take the chance? The problem of God choosing to not elect one’s children is one of the horrible inevitabilities of Calvinist doctrine in general. It’s much easier to be a Calvinist if you believe only other people’s children are damned...) [Another side note here: it’s also easier to be a Calvinist if you are white, because, historically, most Calvinists - the elect - have been white. Your kids may well be Calvinists like you, while those “lazy” people of color can be damned…I have noticed that Calvinists are also highly likely to take a Social Darwinist approach to government policies too, and I believe this is not a coincidence.]
The Calvinist approach, like the denialist approach, thus leads to a dehumanization of LGBTQ people. They are in essence cursed by God, and are thus untouchable. They are chosen before their conception to be damned, and are thus the enemies of God. (I don’t think it is a coincidence that the Reconstructionsts, who believe we should stone gays, are universally Calvinist. Not all Calvinists are like this, but those who do advocate for the execution of gays are pretty universally Calvinists.)
So, Calvinist approach: LGBTQ people don’t have a choice, but they are probably going to hell for God’s glory.
3. The Side B Approach
Those unfamiliar with the terms “Side A” and “Side B” can start here.
“Side B” Christians believe that orientation is not a choice and cannot be “cured,” but that gay Christians are called to lifelong celibacy.
I have been thinking about this for a long time, and I think that this approach has some significant problems in practice which most Side B Christians do not want to deal with in any way. In fact, the problems lead many LGBTQ individuals to conclude that the “Side B” approach - in practice - isn’t that different from the Denialist or Calvinist approaches.
Here is how I see it. If you believe that other people are called to lifelong celibacy, then you have to look at that realistically. There isn’t a magic “this is great” button for someone who has received a sentence like that.
What are some of the implications?
Well, first, those of us in good marriages know that marriage is far, far more than sex, and much of what we draw from a close emotional/sexual/companionate relationship is both non-sexual yet also not available outside of a sexual/romantic relationship. Intimacy and mutual support are not inherently sexual, but they are also not the sort of things that often occur outside of a marriage (or similar relationship.)
Thus, to be sentenced to lifelong celibacy is more than just a loss of sex. It is an inherently less connected and less supported life.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I mean this as no disrespect to singles. Rather, I mean to point out that this is a huge failure of the church community when it comes to singles as well.
However, I think that it is worse for LGBTQ people. Here’s why. If you are a single (or widowed or divorced) heterosexual man in church, you can still form close friendships with other men if you wish. Likewise, an unmarried woman can form close friendships with other women. There is no threat there, and nobody is likely to see such friendships as inappropriate.
However, for an LGBTQ person, this is not in practice available. I would imagine many heterosexual men would feel uncomfortable forming a truly close relationship with a homosexual man, and this would be far more so for a conservative Christian man. After all, what if he is attracted to you? Or, perhaps more on point, what if other church members thought you were gay too, or that you were having a relationship? This isn’t an idle problem. Even my gay friends when they were closeted found that the suspicion that they were gay would keep others in church away from them. [Outside of the church, I think this is improving - I have gay friends and so do many of my generation. My kids generation takes friendship across gender and sexuality differences for granted…]
And then, could a gay man have a close (non-sexual) relationship with another gay man? Nope. That would be even more suspicious.
So what about cross gender friendships? Nope. Decades of freaking out about sex have led to a general belief in most churches that cross-gender friendships - particularly close ones - are bad. Because they lead to sex, inevitably, right?
So you can see that this quickly becomes extremely complicated.
Unless and until the Church takes seriously the fact that lifelong celibacy causes a severe risk of loneliness and lack of human connection, and takes active steps to fill this void, then churches are not going to be safe places for LGBTQ individuals - even celibate ones. If all the church is willing to do is take away connection, without filling that need in other ways, the Side B approach is going to naturally feel hollow and uncaring.
The second problem is that in practical, real life, most people will fail at lifelong celibacy.
Of course, that is true for most sins, honestly. Lifelong selflessness has almost certainly never been attained by anyone other than Christ. Failure is part of the system, so to speak.
Think of it this way. Leo Tolstoy was one who believed that all sexual activity was sin, and that the reason sex resulted in babies was so that another generation would have a chance at salvation. So for people like him, universal lifetime celibacy was God’s will for mankind. This also traces back to Augustine, who allowed that sex to make babies was okay, as long as you didn’t enjoy it. (Which was sin.)
Imagine it, though: what would be the result? Does anyone think it is realistic to expect the entire human race to be celibate? Does anyone think that is likely to happen? Of course not! Human nature - and the sexuality that we were created with - is a powerful force. (Although, lately, it seems that American Evangelicalism is becoming increasing out of touch with biology. Sure everyone - meaning the young people - can wait until 35 to have sex…)
In fact, we have some pretty good proof of this. More than 80% of American Christians (Evangelicals included) have sex out of wedlock. And these are mostly people who have the option of marriage rather than celibacy. And most of them fail even at that.
What seems unrealistic when it comes to the heterosexual population should seem equally unrealistic when speaking of LGBTQ people as well.
So, if you are going to be a Side B and consider homosexual acts sinful, I think you have to realize that just as we heterosexuals are going to fail regularly and all the time when it comes to pride, selfishness, and a plethora of other sins, LGBTQ folks are going to fail most of the time. And LGBTQ folks cannot be expected to do better than we do when it comes to celibacy. It seems awfully rich to put burdens on others, when we are not willing or able to bear those burdens even for a little while.
And, just like we often find ways of justifying bad behavior, they too will often decide to engage in same sex relationships.
At least they have the excuse of being born that way biologically.
Let’s suppose that some people are born with a congenital disease that gives them great pain. There is no cure. All there is is treatment. But the treatment is a drug that is illegal (and God doesn’t like it either.)
Many of those with the disease choose to use the treatment, despite the fact that most people without the disease shun them for it. The pain is just too great.
What the Side B person is telling the ill person is that they just have to suffer the excruciating pain for the rest of their lives, because God (and society) don’t approve of the drug. But the Side B person doesn’t have an alternative to offer.
Thus, I think the Side B person should expect that many will use the drug, and that many of the ill will resent the Side B person for placing a burden on the ill person that the well person will never have to bear. And, to make it worse, many Side B persons work actively to harm those who use the drug to ease the pain.
Bottom line for Side B: Those who hold this view need to realize that they are placing a hard burden on others. If they wish to do that, they need to be willing to take extraordinary steps to ease those burdens.
The dominant feeling should be deep pity, not fear and hostility.
Instead, what we see in American Evangelicalism is a focus on making life as difficult as possible for LGBTQ people. Denying them health care. Refusing to do business with or employ them. And so on.
In other words, whatever we say about being “Side B,” our actions look a heck of a lot like those of the Denialist or Calvinist approaches. It makes me wonder if, deep down (perhaps subconsciously), most Side B advocates still believe that orientation is chosen - and can be fixed - if enough pressure can be brought to bear.
(My personal theory? Many who claim to be Side B are actually closeted Denialists. They just don’t want to admit it and appear to be willfully ignorant and scientifically illiterate.)
The Side B approach, at its core, is problematic because it was and always has been a “solution” designed by cishet people - overwhelmingly male and socially powerful - to impose on LGBTQ people.
If your theology of gender and sexuality has not been built from the ground up with the full and equal participation of women and LGBTQ people, then it will - by definition - be incomplete at best and harmful at worst.
4. The Side A Approach
For this one, I recommend the link I shared above. There is plenty of information out there on the hermeneutical issues, and on the various ways that the words used have been interpreted.
The bottom line for the Side A approach would be this: their interpretation of the Bible (or their approach to the Bible - not treating it as a rule book) is that same-sex relationships should be governed by the same standards as opposite sex relationships. The Golden Rule and love of neighbor should predominate, and the goal should be a lifelong loving commitment. (That is, marriage.) I’m not going to get into the arguments on this. My point isn’t to make a theological argument for one position or the other, but to show the implications of the positions, given the unchosen and unchangeable nature of sexual orientation.
For the Side A advocate, some additional factors come into play. First, given the fact that orientation cannot be changed, there is a problem to be addressed. What do those with the orientation do? If most will fail at celibacy, what is the alternative? Saint Paul said “better to marry than burn with lust,” so perhaps one should channel the libido in a way that isn’t harmful to others, namely long term committed and consensual relationships.
The advantage of this position over the others (particularly in practice) is that it offers a genuine alternative. It isn’t just “be celibate, or we will cut you off from church and family - and society if we can.” It offers a vision of mutual love and commitment.
Again, I am not making an argument for or against Side A or Side B in this post. (You can read about how I became a Side A Christian in this post if you like.) But I am pointing out that unless Side B comes with a commitment to ease burdens, and an understanding that most people will fail at celibacy and will thus need grace and support, it will feel a heck of a lot more like hate than love to LGBTQ people.
I am also pointing out that those outside of a certain interpretive tradition - to say nothing of those who do not share the Christian faith - will be unlikely to be persuaded to embrace a response that ultimately places a heavy burden on LGBTQ people without being willing to take strong action to ease those burdens.
I will also point out that there are likely to be an increasing number of LGBTQ Christians who, after careful study, prayer, and soul searching, believe they are not called to celibacy or to fake heterosexuality. What will be our response? Will those who believe they are called to a different path be accepted into fellowship?
From my experience in Evangelicalism, I’m pretty sure the response will be to fight until their nails bleed to exclude, punish, and yes, hate LGBTQ people with all their hearts. I’m sorry to be cynical about that, but that is what I see. Not pity, not love, but a lot of fear and hate. (Because sex is the one sin that really matters…) And, as Evangelicalism descends further into hate and exclusion, young people will continue to flee the church.
If we remain in denial about sexual orientation, our actions will reflect that. Until we acknowledge that orientation is not chosen, and is extremely unlikely to be changeable, we will continue to react from fear and hostility, seeing a malevolent conspiracy at work.
If we take the Calvinist path, we will likewise dehumanize those who appear chosen for damnation.
If we choose the Side B approach, we had better be willing to make changes to our approach to LGBTQ people. This would require a concerted effort to provide intimacy and connection, and an understanding that failure will be the rule, rather than the exception.
But the implications are still that my response needs to be one of love, not fear and hostility. We have (correctly in my view) rejected the sexual code of the Old Testament, with its stoning of non-virgin women and sexual double standard because (among other reasons) it is grounded in a view of women as property. We may well have clung to an oudated reading of the texts of the New Testament, just like we did regarding slavery (for centuries) and gender roles (an ongoing issue).
The question is always the fruit.
The founder of our religion once said that a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. This is profound, and I believe it is also an underrated teaching. In too many cases, I don’t think we really believe it.
This teaching could have shed much needed light on slavery, and it can shed light now on the harm that patriarchal teachings have caused.
In this particular case, here is what we see: As it is, LGBTQ teens have a significantly elevated suicide rate. That rate is significantly higher in cases where the teen’s family rejects them. And it is also significantly higher in cases where the family puts the teen through conversion “therapy.”
Last I checked, suicide is not good fruit.
If our response to our children causes more of them to believe that they are better off dead, we have a freaking problem.
Since our approach as Evangelicals over the last several decades has been that of some combination of Denialism and Calvinism (see MacArthur, John), and the result has been an elevated suicide rate, maybe we need to rethink our response.
Whether we choose Side A or Side B, I think we need to focus primarily on helping others with their burdens, rather than increasing them.
I am far more confident that the things I do out of compassion for others will be acceptable than the things I do out of selfishness.
If God is indeed the pinnacle of love and goodness and grace, I think He would understand extending kindness and withholding condemnation to others, even if it meant that I got some rules wrong when it came to what others did. I believe that I am far less likely to be condemned because I “failed” to be judgmental enough when it came to the sex others were having than I am for my own casual disregard of the needs of others. For my own pride and self-righteousness. If God rebukes me, I strongly doubt He is going to say, “Your most important job was to make sure that gays didn’t have sex!”
And when I look at the American Church, I think God is going to be a lot more concerned about our embrace of Social Darwinism, our contempt for the poor, our rejection of immigrants and refugees, our embrace of violence, and our failure to protect the vulnerable among us from violence than He is that we failed to get sexuality right.
As we stand now at the entrance of the third millennium since Jesus, we can look back over the horrors of Christian history, never doubting for an instant that if Christians had put kindness ahead of devotion to good order, theological correctness, and our own justifications—if we had followed in the humble footsteps of the heretical Samaritan who was willing to wash someone else’s wounds, rather than in the self-regarding steps of the priest and the immaculate steps of the Levite‚ the world we inhabit would be a very different one. ~Thomas Cahill
And from St. Augustine, who may have been seriously fucked up about sex, but got this one right:
“So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them.”
An interesting link:
Julie Rodgers signed on with Wheaton, and committed herself to celibacy and all the rest of the code. However, her failure to embrace the Denialist position eventually cost her her job.
Some great quotes:
Even though they had known I referred to myself as “gay” prior to hiring me, they encouraged me not to refer to myself as gay any longer. They asked me to say I was simply a Christian who experienced same-sex attraction, one who was open to the Lord healing me in ways that could lead to a holy marriage with a man. The problem was that I didn’t think I needed to be healed––I had been clear about that before I was hired. I had finally come to believe it was good to be gay, that God actually delights in those of us who are gay.
Wheaton’s administration had always pushed back against my attempt to create a positive narrative around being gay rather than one of “brokenness” and the need for healing. The Covenant doesn’t explicitly talk about the badness of a gay orientation, however, so I felt the article would have been in line with the school’s statement of faith.
My experience with the administration confirmed a quiet concern that had grown for years: that traditional views of marriage were often rooted in something other than sincere Christian convictions. If they couldn’t support someone committed to celibacy—someone who abided by their Community Covenant alongside every straight employee—I could only conclude that their anxiety wasn’t about my sex life. Their anxiety was about my existence.
And this is the point: in practice, it is not - and probably never will be - about actual sexual behavior. The very existence of people who cannot be turned into “normal” people - heterosexuals - is problematic for Evangelicals. It isn’t enough for someone like Rodgers to be celibate.
Rather, she must sufficiently hate and loathe who she innately is and desperately yearn to be fixed. To be made into a heterosexual.
Note: Julie Rodgers is now married to a woman. It makes me happy to see she has felt free to live her reality now that she is out of the poisonous religious system.